What do you think of when you hear the word “worship”? Singing? Dancing? Raising hands? Bowing, kneeling, or lying prostrate?
These are certainly expressions of worship—they are proper and biblical. But we have an unfortunate tendency to oversimplify the idea of worship to the point where we simply equate worship with these outward expressions. Depending on what type of faith community you are part of, you might even be considered stubborn or unspiritual for not engaging in these outward expressions—as if you were refusing to worship God.
We all know better—we know that there is more to worship than outwardly expressing emotions toward God. For example, any Christian would admit that performing acts of service or meditating on Scripture would also constitute worship. But practically speaking, in our day-to-day conversation, “worship” often just means “singing.”
I could delve into a word study of the Hebrew words that underlie the scriptural concept of worship, but I want to hit this idea from a different angle today. Traditional Judaism has something to teach us about worship, if we are willing to listen. The sages inform us that one way we can worship God is through learning.
I don’t necessarily mean daily devotions, or listening to sermons. I’m not even talking about Bible study. These things are good, they are learning, they may even be worship—but usually when we study the Bible we don’t consider it to be a spiritual experience in its own right; it is informative or preparatory to a “real” encounter with the divine.
I am talking about something different: considering learning itself, learning just for the sake of learning, to be a spiritual act of worship. We can, through learning, directly express our admiration for God; we can, through learning, directly receive revelation. Whether it is undertaken individually or corporately, learning itself is a spiritual act—an act of worship.
Rabbi Meir said: “Anyone who engages in Torah study for its own sake merits many things. Not only that, but the entire world is worthwhile for him alone. He is called 'friend' and 'beloved,' he loves G-d, he loves man, he brings joy to G-d, he brings joy to man. It [the Torah] clothes him in humility and fear. It enables him to be righteous, pious, upright, and faithful. It distances him from sin and brings him to merit. [Others] benefit from him advice and wisdom, understanding and strength, as it says, 'To me is advice and wisdom, I am understanding, and strength is mine' (Proverbs 8:14). It gives him kingship, dominion and analytical judgment. It reveals to him the secrets of the Torah. He becomes as an increasing stream and an unceasing river. He becomes modest, slow to anger, and forgiving of the wrongs done to him. It makes him great and exalted above all of creation." (Mishna, Pirkei Avot 6A)
This text from the second century CE amazes me; it profoundly solidifies what I believe about learning. The phrase “Torah study for its own sake” (Heb. torah li'shma) represents the idea that one does not study for the sake of acquiring information, or in order to support another discipline or another enterprise. Learning is itself the primary action; it is an end in itself, not a means to some other end. Like prayer, this kind of learning is most authentic when undertaken without self-interest, a discipline often practiced totally alone.
True spiritual learning is an incredibly meaningful experience. It draws one close to God in openness and praise. It builds character and obedience; it strengthens us to stand firm against sin and worldly influence as our minds dwell upon his ways with clarity. Furthermore, the one who is deeply rooted in the Word, the Scriptures, and the Son who is the Word become flesh, will be a blessing to all those surrounding him; he will be a wellspring of love, peace, and truth. He will be strengthened to spread the kingdom and its justice in the world, preparing the way for what is to come.
At our new office in Jerusalem, the Bram Center, I—and all who will come—will “learn Torah for its own sake,” which is everything. Like David the great worshiper wrote, “To do Your will, my God, I have desired, your Torah is in my belly” (Psalm 40:8).